Version tested: PSP
Historically, the football isn't meant to wind up in your hands. Unless of course you're Tiago defending a forty-yard cross-field pass at Anfield. The same is true of handheld football games. There just aren't very many good ones. A quick straw poll of the footy fans here couldn't even come up with one convincing candidate. My old flatmate Rich used to have a soft spot for a couple of Game Boy football games, but I honestly can't remember what they were, so they clearly weren't that good.
But, as we've already noted a couple of times recently, the PlayStation Portable is starting to give us "3D games done properly on a handheld", so it was inevitable that sooner or later we'd see a handheld football game to end the drought once and for all. What's slightly surprising is that we seem to have found one sooner rather than later.
Okay, realistically we may have to wait a bit longer for the "once and for all" part to come true, but World Tour Soccer - developed by the folks behind Sony's increasingly capable This Is Football series - kicks off proceedings with the sort of flair that Jose Reyes demonstrated during the first 50 seconds of Arsenal's game against Spurs last Monday. In other words, it races up the pitch, rounds the keeper, and seven times out of ten you'd back it to score with its weaker foot. That it actually hits the side netting in some cases isn't enough to stop your heart pounding. World Tour Soccer isn't a Pro Evolution Soccer-style simulation, which is usually enough to put me off, but it certainly gets the spectacle right.
The key to its success is that it knows it's an arcade football game and makes the most of it. The ball physics and control precision can't compete with PES (though FIFA, despite its heightened realism, isn't exactly miles ahead) and players don't manoeuvre as convincingly, but what it lacks there it makes up for with accessibility, sensible balance, canny reward structure, and some very strong animation.
Indeed, graphically it's not that far shy of Sony's most recent PS2 offering. There are some lovely dig-the-ball-out-from-between-the-legs passes, dainty toe pokes and convincing slide-tackles. It looks like the feet are kicking the ball properly - an illusion aided, presumably, by the smaller scale, but a convincing one nonetheless. It doesn't always look convincing in terms of backswing and animation blending, mind, but in the final third it manages classier strikes than PES or FIFA generally offer. The scissor kick is an obvious favourite, but in general the body shapes on shots are particularly satisfying; watching the ball sweep across the box and Robert Pires line it up and get his head over it to half-volley into the bottom corner is emphatic, and flowing moves that end in a goal look really nice. Speaking of Pires, he could pay attention to the way players shape up to side-foot the ball in WTS, then perhaps he'd score against Chelsea instead of screwing it wide.
It's pretty flashy and responsive throughout. There's little of the lag in the menus (which you can even re-skin) that we've seen people complain about in FIFA's PSP offering, even with the requisite "boys' indie rock soundtrack" buzzing over the top, and although load times can be a little testing, they're generally only that way the first time. Restarting the same match several times in succession in Challenge mode is almost instantaneous.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. You want to know more about how the football works. Well... On the surface the controls are quite similar to Pro Evolution, and it's easy to pick up in that sense, with functions sensibly laid out across the face and shoulder buttons, and double-tap shots (like the aforementioned scissor kicks) easy to perform once you've moved into the right position.
There's depth here too. There are several different skill moves and shimmies (as well as the 'deliberate dive' function we always found entertaining, even if it is hard to use effectively) and all manner of one-twos and set-play options. For example, you can choose to drive a ball into the area from a corner by filling up a power bar, or you can tap the left shoulder button to be given a choice of zones to play the ball into. And when you lose possession, you can chase back yourself or hold the left shoulder button to have one of your computer-controlled team-mates move in to tackle the player with the ball.
Movement is a bit squirrelly compared to PES or FIFA, as you'd expect from a TIF-derived title, and turnover is a lot less frequent than it is in PES because the ball seems to be stuck to feet rather than fully simulated - at least to a certain extent. That takes a bit of getting used to. However the general dynamic is quite rewarding. Passing moves are fluid and impressive, and as you learn to eke more out of the offensive side of the game you can string together some lovely moves culminating in great strikes. There are also some quite effective pre-set strategies to work through.
Less work seems to have gone into the defensive side of the game, but this is forgivable in most circumstances, and certainly adds an edge to finely poised encounters between two similarly skilled players, or the player and computer-controlled teams on higher skill settings, as a striker weaves his way toward the box and tackles start flying in. World Tour Soccer can certainly be a game of high scores.
And, moving on to the way it keeps you playing it, at times it's certainly a high scores game. It knows that it's an arcade game, and there are carefully layered rewards sprinkled throughout that tumble into your lap as you achieve certain feats - in a similar way to the bonuses you unlock by getting a hole-in-one or hitting every green in the regulation number of strokes in a Tiger Woods golf game. Score a hat trick, or keep three consecutive clean sheets, or something along those lines, and you can unlock classic teams and other trinkets. As you crack through the game's various cups and tournaments, you collect tokens which can be spent unlocking better teams.
Probably the game's finest achievement in this regard is Challenge mode, which is about playing as fluidly and spectacularly as possible against increasing tough teams in order to earn points. You gain small totals for passes, slightly bigger ones for tricks and clever moves, and obviously a lot more for goals. These points translate into (well, yes, prizes, but wait for it) medals. You get bonuses for things like avoiding yellow cards, and although the first few challenges are pretty easy the latter ones require a much greater mastery of the game.
The only pity is that there aren't more of them; this is an idea we'd like to see explored to a much greater degree than it is here. It's fun while it lasts though, and keeps you coming back again and again. Hence all the restarting; the same sort of "nope, screwed up the first section, must restart" mentality that's kept the Start button in work as I've ploughed hours into everything from SSX to Mercury over the years.
Admittedly over time there are things you'll find irritating in WTS. The way the ball sometimes bounces oddly or the computer-controlled players behave oddly, the occasional-lottery of shooting, and the repetition of the commentary, for example. And yes, it is a bit silly when the ball comes loose in the six-yard box and the goalkeeper leaps over it, knocking over the incoming striker and leaving the ball to gently trickle over the line, or when you get knocked over, everyone stops, and you get up, dust yourself off and pick up the ball and start moving again.
But there are usually upsides, or there's enough going on elsewhere to compensate. World Tour Soccer may not be a fantastic football game, and shouldn't end up being the PSP's best, but it's the best it has at the moment, and there are moments when it comes close to being fantastically fun and compelling. It gets enough right. It doesn't have all the official tournament licensing, for example, but it has all the player names down right - and its fixture listings, even as tournaments advance, are spookily consistent with recent events like World Cup 2002.
The player likenesses, too, are convincing enough. They're not distinctive in terms of the way they play as they are in PES, but then that's the whole thing about World Tour Soccer, really: it's not really simulating football; it's emulating football spectacle, and with the addition of Challenge mode and a clever reward structure on top of an accessible and plainly enjoyable arcade experience it does that effectively enough to be a worthy purchase for footy lovers who want to, as the yanks would have it, punch a hole in the score bag. So then. Jose Reyes hits the side netting out of ten. Breathe.
7 / 10